Sometimes you want date night to be fancy, and are willing to spend some extra dollars to get there. And sometimes, you want nothing to do with that noise.
There's no special occasion required for getting dressed up and doing something extravagant, just like there's no reason that having a special night out has to mean changing out of jeans or maxing out a credit card. Both kinds of dates — fancy and cheap — can be had in abundance in Tampa Bay.
Here are some suggestions for both. Use them to celebrate Valentine's Day, or keep them in your back pocket for next time your significant other asks, "What do you want to do?" You'll stun by having actual ideas.
DINNER and a MOVIE
There's a recent study out of the University of Chicago suggesting that when two people eat the same foods during a meal, it increases trust between them. With that in mind, you could share small plates at extra-hip spots like Fly in downtown Tampa and Rooster & the Till in Seminole Heights, but if you really want to get fancy, indulge in a tasting menu, where you'll both get a set selection of various dishes served in courses for a set price.
Mise En Place in Tampa offers a five-course tasting menu featuring chef Marty Blitz's weekly favorites for $54 with optional wine pairings. In St. Petersburg, upstairs inside Locale Market in Sundial, FarmTable Kitchen regularly hosts The Chef's Table, an eight-course meal that's limited to 10 people, includes a tour and includes tableside service by the chef who prepared it ($105). The Black Pearl in Dunedin hosts occasional, prix fixe chef's dinners (keep an eye on their Facebook page), but offers top notch new American and French fine dining with an intimate, hidden-gem vibe in its small dining room on any night.
There's also something extra-fancy about having dessert, or your pre-meal cocktails, at a different location than your dinner. For instance, all within one walkable span on South Howard Avenue, you could have drinks at the sexily-lit Ciro's Speakeasy (call ahead to get the password), dine on one of the "dinner for two" selections at Elevage at the Epicurean Hotel, and cross the street for chocolate delights at Bern's famous Harry Waugh Dessert Room. Mix and match those.
There is no more elegant place to see a movie in Tampa Bay, and perhaps the whole Southeast, than the century-old Tampa Theatre. But if you want high-tech comfort, reserve a leather recliner at one of AMC's new Dolby Cinema auditoriums with insanely upgraded image and sound quality. There are three in Tampa Bay: AMC Veterans in Tampa; AMC Regency in Brandon; and AMC Woodlands Square 20 in Oldsmar, opening this week. Cinebistro, which has locations in Wesley Chapel and Tampa, will serve you drinks and dinner at your seat (also a super-comfy recliner) while you watch a movie.
The goal here is to keep it cheap without feeling cheap. Food trucks are cheap, but they feel fun. Flicks and Food Trucks happens on the third Thursday of every month in the big courtyard at The Grand Central at Kennedy in Tampa's Channelside district, featuring 15 of the area's best trucks, plus free live music and a free movie on an outdoor screen. Across downtown, the Sail Pavilion waterfront bar at the Tampa Convention Center has a nice view, and does a Brews and Bites food truck event on the second Friday of every month.
Green Bench Brewing Co. in St. Petersburg shows a free movie each week on a big screen in their garden, and they like to mix it up with everything from a serious environmental documentary to a recent screening of the mockumentary Best In Show. They also allow outside food, which means you can hit Bodega across the street for one of Tampa Bay's best Cuban sandwiches, which will run you all of $8.
There are many free movie series in the area. Sunsets at Pier 60 in Clearwater Beach offers up a gorgeous view followed by a free film every Friday and Saturday all year. The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg's Movies on the MFA Lawn features the Leonardo DiCaprio-Claire Danes Romeo and Juliet on Sunday, and Tampa's Screen on the Green, Dali Museum's Summer Cult Classics and DTSP Summer Cinema generally announce their seasonal lineups in the spring.
There are plenty of big-time stars coming to major venues this year in Tampa Bay (Bruno Mars, Twenty One Pilots, Mariah Carey, Norah Jones, Green Day and Sam Hunt all have dates set). These days, nearly everyone playing the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, Amalie Arena or Ruth Eckerd Hall offer VIP packages with varying perks, from dinner to special souvenirs to private bathrooms. If you've got the money (from hundreds to more than $1,000) you could meet Eric Church or Lionel Richie during their stops at Amalie Arena, or get a backstage tour when Bon Jovi, below, comes to Tampa on Valentine's Day, or when Zac Brown Band plays the Amphitheatre. Also consider uprgrading to VIP balcony tickets for a show at The Ritz Ybor or Jannus Landing. Both offer a new perspective from above the fray.
Keep an eye on the calendars at Local 662 and State Theatre in St. Pete, and Crowbar and the Orpheum in Ybor City, for tickets to see national artists for around $10 to $20. New World Brewery shows in Ybor are often even cheap or free, and you can munch on pizza in a cool, indoor-outdoor setting where you can actually hear you date. If free is a must, the free Rock the Park concert on the first Thursday of every month at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in Tampa draws a big crowd with lawn chairs and blankets in tow to see younger-leaning local bands, and vendors sell food, beer and cocktails. Safety Harbor Third Friday shuts down Main Street every third Friday of the month for a street fest with live music and food vendors. SubCentral, the romantic, lounge-y, speakeasy in the basement of the new Iberian Rooster in St. Petersburg is now regularly offering live jazz and blues for free. Other St. Pete spots regularly offering free music: Ruby's Elixir (jazz and soul), The Bends (indie rock and experimental), Green Bench (acoustic and rock), and Ale and the Witch (it varies, but people dance).
PERFORMING ARTS and COMEDY
The biggest spectacle (and biggest ticket prices) in terms of live theater in the area are the touring Broadway productions that are always scheduled a year ahead at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Wicked, which runs through Feb. 26, tops out $278 for the absolute best seats — downright Hamiltonian for Tampa Bay — and productions of The King and I, Little Mermaid, Rent and Motown the Musical are all upcoming this year.
For comedy, big names will play the larger venues (Chris Rock comes to the Straz in April, Mike Epps is at the Sun Dome March), but the premiere, date-appropriate spot to catch a top-notch comic on any random week is the Tampa Improv in Ybor City (SNL alum Finesse Mitchell, left, headlines tonight through Saturday), and they run dinner shows with VIP seating options throughout the year, so you can dine while you laugh.
For less than $30, you can catch anything on the calendar from Jobsite Theater (soon to begin A Skull in Connemara) or StageWorks (currently staging The Aliens), and get a much more intimate experience than those traveling Broadway shows. You could also time your date to see a "preview," held the last couple days before a new show officially opens, at a theater like American Stage or Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg and get in for almost half off the regular price. Tampa Repertory has a series called Conversation Starters, "staged readings of new plays you won't be able to stop talking about" on the second Monday of each month at the intimate CL Space in Ybor for $10. And Wordier Than Thou bookstore in Pinellas Park hosts its "Way the F--- Off Broadway" series of free, short plays on its porch on the fourth Friday of every month. By the way, their Facebook events page is a cornucopia of free or cheap live storytelling nights and other unique, literary-themed events at cool venues across Tampa Bay.
If you want cheap laughs, the Box theater in Ybor (boximprov.com) has regular improv shows (on Friday and Saturday it's The Love Show, showcasing the "joys, awkwardness, hilarity" of finding and losing love) for $5 or $10. For free stand-up, hit the Odd Wednesdays open-mic at Tampa Improv (every other Wednesday at 10 p.m.), or open-mic night at Iberian Rooster (second and fourth Tuesdays of the month at 9 p.m.). Both have solid drink specials.
OUTDOORS and ACTIVITIES
Want a romantic cruise on Tampa Bay's waterways? Tampa Bay Sailing Tours has you covered with three trips departing daily in downtown Tampa, including a sunset cruise with cuisine by Sono Cafe ($89 per person). Or, for $60 to $90 an hour, you can captain your own, comfy, electric boat up and down the Hillsborough River from eBoats at the Tampa Convention Center (bring along a bottle of bubbly).
The Giraffe Ranch in Dade City, featuring nearly 50 acres of free-roaming exotic animals, does safari vehicle tours ($90), but will also let you ride high on a camel expedition, segway safari or llama trek ($180).
If you want something even more unique, IFly Tampa, the first "indoor skydiving" center in Tampa Bay, opened recently in Brandon (right next to TopGolf Tampa, another fantastic activity-date spot), and will train you and let you "fly" in their wind tunnel starting at $59. If you're looking to check out your date's team-building skills, there are around a dozen "escape room" attractions that have opened in the area over the past two years.
Just because it's public transportation doesn't mean it can't be fun. Get on the water for $10 by taking the Cross Bay Ferry that runs between downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa. There's also the Pirate Water Taxi that will ferry you to different points of interest along the downtown Tampa waterfront, $12 after 6 p.m. A canoe rental to check out a far more untouched part of the Hillsborough River will run $25 for up to four hours at Lettuce Lake Park in Tampa (you will see gators, probably a lot of them). Or you could just walk the extensive boardwalk ($2 to park, and you will see still see gators).
It's hard to beat Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg for hiking, yet another place where you will likely see gators, but also a bald eagle and red-tailed hawk in their bird sanctuary, and some giant, metal sculptures out along the trails. It's $3 to enter for the day. At 8700 acres, Brooker Creek Preserve in Tarpon Springs is the largest natural area in Pinellas County, offering an extensive network of trails boardwalks and guided nature hikes, and it's all free. The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor will charge you only a $10 donation, plus $1 per scoop of food, to visit and feed the apes
If you'd like a bit of flirtatious competition, but don't want to shell out $20 to $40 an hour for TopGolf, the 20th Hole Golf Range Bar and Grill in Hudson is a lighted driving range that's open late and serves up burgers, wings and beer at moderate prices. The St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club is a quirky spot that lets non-members play every Friday night (and bring along their own food and beer) for an optional donation.
The games at the Lowry Parcade in Tampa literally run on quarters. And it's $13 to play all machines all day at the Replay Amusement Museum in Tarpon Springs, home of more than 100 vintage arcade and pinball games.
Need more culture? The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg is $5 after 5 p.m. every Thursday, and the Tampa Museum of Art offers pay-what-you-want admission every Friday from 4 to 10 p.m. For some stargazing, you could pay the $26 admission to MOSI to experience the Saunders Planetarium show, but St. Petersburg College planetarium and observatory welcomes the public for free shows every Friday night at 7 and 8:15 p.m. when the college is in session. The observatory and portable telescopes are available to the public after the show.